An Analysis of the Origins and Characteristics of South Korean Culture

The culture of Korean people is a unique blend of Chinese and Japanese influences. Korea is located between China and Japan. The name Korea comes from the early dynasty name of Koryo, meaning high and clear. The symbol comes from Korea’s mountains, clear blue sky, and streams. The Korean culture differs greatly from the American society in which I am accustomed. Korean history, family life, mannerisms, religion, ethics, communication, clothing, food, holidays and rituals are vastly different from other cultures. The study of Korean culture paves the way for better business and personal relationships.

This history of Korea began with the establishment of hierarchical arrangements. Korea had developed a social order among the citizens. Early in Korea’s history were four distinct social classes. The highest order among the people was the military (yangban), which married within their structures and lived apart from the other classes. The middle people (chungin) were comprised as professional people but still treated as second-class citizens. The good or common people (yangmin/sangmin) contained mostly farmers and fishermen. The peasants or outsiders (ch’onmin) were society’s outcasts, slaves, women, healers, and entertainers. Power was in the form of groups of ruling elite and they appointed kings.

Social order was determined by bloodline. Later, public officials were appointed on the basis of their performance on the civil examinations. After the Japanese takeover or the Korean peninsula, Japan forced the Koreans to give up their surnames and adopt Japanese names. They also demanded that Koreans learned Japanese and forbade the use of Korean in any form. In 1948 South Korea became the Republic of Korea and North Korea declared themselves Communist. The split was based on land division at the 38th parallel. Most of the information contained in this paper is based on the culture of the citizens of South Korea.

Korean culture is closely linked to their religious beliefs. Over the course of Korean history, many religions have been practiced. An early religion called Shamanism believed that all objects possessed souls whose actions are attributed to the actions of the spirits. Through the use of Shamans, rituals and exorcisms are performed to drive the spirits away. Shamans were employed to keep the spirits under control. Only females were priests chosen by divine inspiration. Buddhism and Confucianism later replaced Shamanism. Siddhartha Guatama founded Buddhism in 563 B.C. (Samovar and Porter 108). It was adopted by Korea due to it’s teachings in birth, death, and rebirth. Through these teachings, the government felt justified in their continuation of the utilization of social class distinctions.

Another religion practiced in Korea was Confucianism. Confucianism placed an emphasis on moral values, the importance of the family bond, and placing the father as the king of the family. It also stressed loyalty and fidelity in keeping society in place. Confucianism spurned the development of Neo-Confucianism. Neo-Confucianism explains the origins of man and the universe. They believe that things come to being as a result of the union of two elements. They practice the five fundamental human relationships, which are between monarch and subject, father and son, husband and wife, elder and younger brother, and friendship. They provide a strict code for government. Catholicism was also found in Korean religion. Catholics believed in equality among humanity, which became a hopeful doctrine for women and lower class citizens.

Christianity is also part of the Korean culture. People have adopted the beliefs in high moral standards and enlightened learning. It has grown greatly since the Korean War. Taoism resembles Shamanism, yet it didn’t prosper in the Korean culture. They have however taken it’s love of nature, harmony, and simplicity in symbols and employed them in their society. Eastern Learning (Tonghak) also believed in equality for all people, and spoke of social reforms. This religion later became more of a political movement and caused a revolt later abolished by the Japanese invasion. Although many religions are found in Korea, the most dominant religion is Buddhism. Many people combine parts of many religions to establish their religious beliefs.

Marriage customs also change depending on the culture. In the past, men were allowed to have several wives. Korean marriages are usually a result of two different methods. The first and most traditional way of involve the arrangement of the marriage by the in laws (also called chungmae). After careful investigation of each parties four pillars, the couple having a promising future can proceed with the marriage and the couple whose four pillars predict doom can cancel marriage plans. A few days before the ceremony, the male send the bride a box of gifts. Gifts may include red and blue fabric and jewelry.

The wedding ceremony takes place at the bride’s house. After the ceremony, the newlyweds would stay the night at the bride’s home. The next few days would be spent at the groom’s home. Depending on the groom’s birth order, the newly married couple may reside in either his parent’s home, or move into their own place. Due to the lack of experience in choosing partners, arranged marriages are still popular. The other way that Korean marriages occur is through the love match of each party. The ceremony may or may not remain the same, depending on what the couple decides. Weddings are also held in public wedding halls similar to the American tradition of weddings.

Not all Korean weddings are eternally blissful. Korean divorce is not common but is allowed under certain circumstances. In times of divorce, the woman had no rights and could be dismissed for a multitude of reasons. Koreans use the Confucianism statement of due reason to initiate divorce proceedings. Reasons a man may divorce his wife are disobeying parents-in-law, having no male children, committing adultery, jealousy, carry a hereditary disease, garrulousness, and larceny. (Korean Overseas Information Services 34). People cannot marry within their bloodline or out of their social class. Widows were previously unable to remarry. In more recent times, a female divorcee must wait six months before remarrying. A negative pregnancy test can dissolve the waiting period. Many of these customs have been changed or altered to fit the wants of the couple.

The family is considered the most important part of the Korean structure. Young people are taught very early to respect their elders. Children must obey their parents and teachers in all matters. Some families consist of three generations living under the same roof. The male continues to be the head of household. In some cases, when a woman gets married, she and her husband moves into the house with her in laws. The eldest son is responsible for the care of his parents. Daughters go to live with their husbands’ parents and assume the role of caretaker. They must please their in-laws at all cost.

The mother in law has the power to send the bride away if she disgraces the family in any way. By having a son, the daughter in law establishes her place in the family. Children are not disciplined until they are beyond the age of seven. Boys and girls are separated and taught in different fashions. Boys are taught to read and write in Korean and Chinese. Daughters are seldom educated and learn that they are inferior to the family. Families follow very traditional roles, with each passing on to the next generation.

Korean births are vital in preserving the family history and structure. The pressure to deliver a male child is great, as families are judged by the number of males they produce. When a woman becomes pregnant, she first notifies her mother in law. At this time, the roles reverse and the mother in law is responsible for the care of the daughter. The mother refrains from negative thinking and eats healthy. Males are not part of the delivery of the child; it is usually attended by the mother and mother in law. Korean women are not permitted to be noisy in childbirth. Following delivery, the placenta is burned and saved for it’s medicinal uses in times of sickness. Life begins with the day of conception, so at birth, the child is already one year old. (Traditional Health Beliefs, 2) After the birth of a male child, chili peppers lace the door of the home. If the child is a female, charcoal appears over the door. Male children are considered blessings and too many female children can be grounds for divorce.

Names are significant in Korean culture. Family names such as Lee, Kim, Pak and Yi are the most common in Korea. Names are listed as surname first, followed by given name. The same name is given to all male members, alternating by generation. Women do not adopt the husbands name; they are either referred to as Mr. Lee’s wife or their full name. Koreans are usually addressed by the family name, saving the first names for close family and friends. Titles are commonly used for business settings. The exchange of business cards allows each party the opportunity to introduce themselves. This is important in the Korean culture, as they believe verbal inquiries are rude. The proper uses of Korean names are vital in business dealings and to establish personal relationships.

Education is very important in Korean culture. It is considered very vital in establishing position and social distinction. Korea holds one of the highest literacy rates in the world. Schools are in session six days per week, with long hours each day. Although schooling is not mandatory after completion of the sixth grade, the majority of students continue their studies into graduate school. Teachers should refrain from correcting assignments or writing a child’s name with red ink. This symbolizes death in the Korean culture. The number four (4) is also considered unlucky for Koreans. It is treated in the same manner as the Westerners think of the number thirteen (13). The Korean language is easy to read and write, but choosing how to address individuals is a little more difficult. The Korean alphabet consists of 10 vowels and 14 consonants, written in a series from left to right.

Korean ceremonies may include parties, birthday celebrations, or funerals. One of the many parties includes a coming of age party for girls. They style their hair in a different manner showing society that they are now coming into womanhood. Important birthday celebrations consist of the first and sixtieth birthday only. For the person’s first birthday, the child is dressed in colorful clothing and surrounded by baked goods and treats. For the man’s sixtieth birthday, he is given a grand banquet to symbolize the completion of the cycle of active life. There his children and grandchildren celebrate him. This signifies the end of his life expectancy, and he may retire. His sons are obligated to support him. Korean funerals differ greatly from American tradition. If the individual knows that death is imminent, he/she will be brought home to die peacefully. Sorrow and sadness are felt throughout the family.

Obituaries are prepared and mailed to family, friends, and acquaintances. Although the actual notice is not permitted in the house, it must be hung on the outside gate. The day after death, the corpse must be bathed and dressed in a traditional death dress (suui). After the corpse is placed in the coffin, the lid is sealed, and the coffin is taken to the room designated for the mourning period (usually three days). The deceased is then taken to the grave site and buried. On the first anniversary of the death, family member have a memorial service (sosang). In death, some families are required to establish a family throne. Many of these practices continue in Korean culture, although modifications may be necessary to preserve the wishes of the individual.

Korean holidays include the Korean New Year, Buddha’s birthday, Korean Thanksgiving, Children’s Day, and Swing Day. Since Koreans follow both the lunar and Gregorian calendar, the dates of each holiday may differ from American standard dates. The Korean New Year, also known as Folklore Day usually taking place on January 1. Younger members bow to their elders and family members get together to respect their ancestors. Buddha’s birthday, celebrated on May 19 this year, also known as the Feast of Lanterns is celebrated across the land by lighting lanterns both in the temples and the private homes. The actual day is based on the lunar calendar of the eighth day of the fourth month.

Korean Thanksgiving, also knows as Chusock is held in the eighth lunar month during early fall. It is a time to visit family tombs, wear traditional costumes, dance and sing. This celebration lasts for two days and nearly all businesses close for the annual celebration. Although, Koreans celebrate their specific holidays, they also celebrate universal holidays as well. Memorial Day in Korea is celebrated on June 6. Labour Day is May 1 in which schools remain open, but most banks are closed. Christmas remains inline with the Western holiday on December 25. Holidays are seen as a time of celebration and deep family commitment.

Many Korean mannerisms are much different from the Western world. Table manners differ greatly in a Korean household. A guest is expected to bring a gift to the hostess. The hostess usually puts the gift aside to be opened at another time. Males are usually served first. Females cook the food and set the table. Husbands and wives sit together. . The crossing of one’s legs is considered impolite. Conversation is very limited during meals. Guests sit on cushions around a low table. Many different foods are served, each cut into bite-sized pieces. Each person has his own bowl of rice, but helps himself to other foods directly from the serving dishes. Etiquette, 1) Koreans use chopsticks and spoons to eat their meals.

During a meal, chopsticks should never be rested in the bowl. Reaching in front of others without asking is acceptable at the table. Under no circumstances, should anyone at the table wipe or blow their nose. It is considered one of the rudest gestures in Korean culture. Be sure not to empty the bowl, as that is a sign of disrespect to the host. Never lick your fingers, or drink directly from bottles. Also, filling the glass is considered greedy. Drinks will be served frequently and parties should use two hands to pass and receive glasses. All parties must remain at the table until the elders have finished. (Korean Culture, 1)

Korean foods consist of rice as the main dish and a selection of meats or vegetables as sides dishes. The most common side dish is Kim chi, a spicy pickled combination of cabbage, turnips, onions, hot peppers, and other seasonings. It can be served with all meals, including breakfast. Red pepper is a popular seasoning in Korean dishes. Drinks include rice or barley tea. They are not fond of sweet deserts and usually enjoy fresh fruit.

Korean clothing also differs from American culture. Women typically wear a dress, petite coat, underwear, an inner skirt and socks. Men usually wear pants, an overcoat, vest, outer coat, and socks. Most traditional clothing is reserved for the elderly and those celebrating a special occasion. Upon entering a Korean temple, restaurant, or house all shoes must be removed and left on the doorstep. Slippers are permitted for use indoors. Public buildings do not follow this routine

Bowing is a traditional greeting in Korea. It is considered respectful for the younger person to bow first. Bowing is also used to express respect for people of a higher level, such as parents, elderly, superiors, and officials.

Physical contact is usually restrained for those who are closely related. Slapping on the back, frequent touching in business arrangements is considered rude. Same sex touching is common in the Korean culture. It is simply the show of affection between others and nothing homosexual involved. Koreans view the head as the center of existence, so it is never to be touched. Koreans will touch children to show affection but otherwise refrain from excess touching. They do not believe in respecting strangers, so they may bump into a person on the street and not bother to apologize.

In business relations Koreans are cunning negotiators. They do not practice fair play and do whatever it takes to gain an advantage. They will stall until time has nearly run out before declining offers. Koreans must be comfortable with business partners or they cannot negotiate. Meetings are usually very long, with the Korean parties exercising extreme caution in decision making. Koreans view direct eye contact as impolite, so they will focus on the conversation instead of looking at an individual. Typically, they will not boldly decline an offer, but will give hints that things may not be going well. They also expect intense bargaining, as settling too quickly is viewed as a sign of weakness.

Koreans view smiling as a sign of shallowness in the person. In turn, others cultures view Koreans as hostile because they do not smile very often. They believe that communication can be accomplished by use of the eyes, and many times words are not necessary. Koreans are accustomed to hiding their negative feelings as to not cause others shame.

Koreans have a certain ethical system in which they follow. Freedom of speech, press and assembly as set as most valued. The confession under duress in not acceptable in court hearings. They believe in a certain right to happiness, clean environment, and privacy. Like Americans, they also believe in a persons’ innocence until proven guilty.

Within the Korean culture lay a foundation for many people. Whether their beliefs appear right or wrong is not the issue. Other cultures see their lives much differently from the American standard. As Americans we dictate the norms and declare all others wrong. Due to the continuous immigration of other cultures into the United States, we must be willing to study and understand those who are unlike us. Koreans have become successful business people while at the same time, retaining their distinct cultural values. I am proud to have the ability to accept the Korean people without judging or expecting them to assimilate the American culture.

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